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Pittsburgh synagogue jury must choose between antisemitism or mental illness, life or death

 Five stars with names of people are next to flowers.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

For prosecutors, the case against Robert Bowers has been straightforward: He left behind substantial evidence tying himself to the most violent antisemitic act in U.S. history when he murdered 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018. And this crime, the prosecution argued, deserves the most severe penalty available.

“11 people. 11 full lives. 11 people who loved their families. 11 people who loved their friends. 11 people who were loved. 11. 813 years of life. 813. Gone,” said U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan during his closing argument Monday in the final sentencing phase of the trial.“He took his Jewish hatred and took every single one of them into what he called his ‘Yiddish dozen.’”

For Bowers’ lawyers, this case wasn’t about antisemitism but the life of a tortured man, who developed his views about antisemitism less than a year before the attack. What happened in this case wasn’t the product of a history of hate, they argued, but the tragic perpetuation of a traumatic childhood and undiagnosed schizophrenia.

“We have tried to tell you about his life through witnesses which, by anyone's measure, could be summed up by one word: sad,” Bowers’ lead defense attorney Judy Clarke said during her closing argument.

Jurors will begin deliberations Tuesday morning to decide whether to sentence Bowers to death or life in prison without the possibility of release. The same jurors found Bowers eligible for the death penalty in July. They also found him guilty on all 63 of the federal counts he faced, including 11 counts of a hate crime that resulted in death, in June.

During their final deliberation, jurors must weigh all of the aggravating factors that made Bowers’ crime worse than a typical crime, including the fact that he targeted Jews in a place of worship and that many of the victims were especially vulnerable. They must also weigh evidence presented by defense lawyers to suggest he deserves leniency, including his traumatic childhood that included multiple attempts to take his own life.

There is no prescribed legal code for how each juror should weigh such competing evidence. Each juror may decide individually how much each of the aggravating and mitigating factors should matter. The jury must be unanimous to recommend the death penalty. A single juror could force the judge to impose a sentence of life in prison instead.

As lawyers made their final cases, they appealed as much to the jurors’ moral sense of right and wrong as they did to the facts of the case.

“We cannot rewind the clock and make it such that this senseless crime never happened,” Clarke said. “All we can really do is make the right decision going forward, and that is life.”

In rebuttal, prosecutor Troy Rivetti said jurors should focus on the lives of the 11 people lost and not just on Bowers. Reciting the names of the victims, he reminded the jury of what was lost.

“You have been here for two months. Do not be numb to the magnitude of the pain and loss and aggravating factors of this defendant's murders,” Rivetti said. “They weigh heavy.”

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What led up to 2018?

The defense is asking the jury to consider more than 100 mitigating factors that they believe warrant leniency for Bowers. Many of those factors point back to his troubled childhood and the mental illness that they said grew out of it.

His parents clashed violently, threatening his life at an early age. His father later committed suicide. His mother was unstable and often couldn’t put food on the table. Bowers’ teachers recommended that he get psychological help multiple times, but his mother didn’t follow up. Instead he was admitted to psychiatric hospitals several times, first at age 13 and again after he set himself on fire in what his family believed to be one of several attempts to kill himself.

Prosecutors have asked: What did these childhood experiences have to do with his actions more than three decades later? In her closing statement, Clarke said that it’s only common sense that his problems didn’t go away.

“It defies reality to say he had a miraculous recovery from his incidents,” she said. “He got better, he's fine, he's just an evil guy. What it does is it reflects a complete misunderstanding of serious mental illness. Childhood matters. We don't become 18 or 19, and all of a sudden that many years are washed away and all of a sudden [we] are better.”

Clarke cast aspersions on the prosecution’s mental health expert, Dr. Park Dietz, who challenged the claims of three defense experts who said that Bowers had schizophrenia. She also said the jury should not trust the prosecutions’ experts, who all worked for Dietz and would not be able to show their independence.

“Mental health professionals who testify in a death-penalty case should not have business relationships, period. It is not only ill-advised, it should be disallowed,” she said.

While the prosecution emphasized the year 2018, when Bowers appeared to develop his antisemitic beliefs and planned the attack, Clarke said it was important for the jury to look at everything that led up to that time. He spent much of his 30s living with and caring for his grandfather, which provided him some stability. But, his grandfather died in 2014, and two years later, his only true friend died of an overdose, Clarke said.

Shortly after the loss of these two stabilizing figures in his life, Bowers was “becoming more isolated and living alone, and it is then that he succumbed to his mental illness, to his delusional beliefs and brought us where we are today,” Clarke said.

A large portion of Clarke’s argument didn’t even refer to Bowers or the crime but instead to the jurors themselves.

“This is about who you are. It is about your values. It is about your sense of justice. It is about your life experiences. About your own individual understanding and your own sense of humanity,” she said.

She told jurors that they could be the lone dissenting voice but that they needed to stand up for what they believed.

“‘What if everyone else feels differently than I do? What if they want something I don't feel is right?’” Clarke said. “You have to be true to your conscience.”

‘How do you measure the impact of all of that loss?’

During the prosecution’s closing argument, Olshan walked the jury through the attack a final time.

Bowers “turned an ordinary Jewish Sabbath into the worst antisemitic mass shooting in U.S. history. And he is proud of it. That’s why you’re here,” Olshan said. “This is a case that calls for the most severe punishment under the law: the death penalty.”

Olshan stressed that Bowers’ antisemitic and white supremacist beliefs motivated the attack, reminding jurors of his posts on Gab, a social media site known as a hotbed for far-right conspiracy theories and antisemitic content.

“There is so much evidence of this defendant’s religious hatred,” Olshan said. “Do not be numb to it. Remember what it means.”

Prosecutors noted that Bowers chose the synagogue for its symbolic significance as a place of worship. And Olshan detailed the lives of the 11 people killed that day and how their deaths affected their family and friends, as well as the mental and physical wounds suffered by survivors of the attack.

Joyce Fienberg was the central cog in her family and always focused on helping the people around her. She was the kind of mom who paid attention to every detail, Olshan said. Her family now tries to focus on their happy memories with her because “you can’t fill the hole,” one of her sons testified earlier in the trial.

Richard Gottfried was a pillar of the New Light congregation, dedicated to his faith and the University of Pittsburgh sports teams he rooted for. His loss created a “void,” his sister, who survived the attack, said during her testimony this summer.

Rose Mallinger was 97 but “sharp as a tack and always ready to dance at family gatherings,” Olshan said. She won’t be at her granddaughter’s wedding, and her family will feel her loss for the rest of their lives, he said.

Jerry Rabinowitz was more like a country doctor than a city doctor, according to Olshan. He wore a perpetual smile, made house calls to his patients and loved delivering babies.

Olshan said “the boys,” Cecil and David Rosenthal, were the glue of their family. Though both experienced Fragile X syndrome and had mental and physical disabilities, they each held important roles during Shabbat services.

“Our family will never be the same,” their father said in video testimony played again in court on Monday.

Bernice and Sylvan Simon married at Tree of Life synagogue 60 years before they both died there. Their children carry the trauma of their loss, Olshan said.

When Daniel Stein’s son got married at the synagogue, Stein gave part of his speech in Spanish to welcome his new daughter-in-law’s Spanish-speaking family, Olshan said.

Irving Younger found solace in weekly attendance at Tree of Life after his wife died. He found love again later in life, Olshan said, but his partner has been devastated by his death.

Melvin Wax served in Germany after World War II and saw the aftermath of the Holocaust. He was 87 years old but still parked his car away from the synagogue entrance so others could park close to the doors. Olshan said his death has unsettled his family’s life.

“Mother. Father. Brother. Grandfather. Grandmother. Husband. Son. These 11 walked in for services that morning, and they never walked out again.” Olshan said. “How do you measure the impact of all of that loss?”

Olshan noted that Bowers continues to show a lack of remorse. He emphasized the deliberate and methodical way Bowers made his way through the synagogue, aiming to cause maximum harm to the people he encountered.

Olshan also reminded the jury that — as recently as June — Bowers told a defense expert witness that he still hated Jewish people. The only thing Bowers said he regretted was not planning better by bringing more ammunition and not killing more people. That same defense witness said Bowers is currently “incapable” of showing remorse due to mental illness, but he may come to understand that he murdered 11 innocent people if he’s prescribed antipsychotic medication.

Prosecutors also sought to put defense witnesses’ expertise into question and poke holes in the mitigating factors presented by the defense. Olshan argued that the defense did not adequately establish its contention that Bowers has epilepsy or schizophrenia. He noted that Bowers told prosecution and defense experts he’s not delusional. While one defense expert said Bowers was downplaying his delusions in order to appear sane, Olshan said that’s because Bowers isn’t delusional, adding that he is not currently prescribed antipsychotic medication.

Olshan asked each of the jurors to take on “the absolutely crushing weight of the loss and the impact of each person the defendant killed” and “put it on the scale.”

“Carry each of those details with you into the jury room,” he instructed them. “Feel their weight.”

“Each death is sufficient on its own,” Olshan said. “That is all the law requires . . . put it on the scale, weigh it for this defendant who is proud that he carried out the worst mass shooting against Jews in U.S. history. Weigh it. And when you’re done, impose the only punishment that is sufficient under our law: a sentence of death.”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.
Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at